Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Army Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi (left) and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri visit an underground drone base, in an unknown location in Iran, on May 28. Photo: Iranian Army office via AFP
Sameed Basha
Sameed Basha

Why 40 years of US sanctions failed to keep Iran away from Russia

  • Iran has insulated its economy so well that US sanctions can do little to prevent it from supplying Russia with drones and missiles
  • Had the US tried to engage Iran instead, dependence on Western trade may have discouraged it from pursuing such deals
Iran’s supply of drones and an agreement to provide surface-to-surface short-range missiles to Russia reveals an abject failure of US foreign policy, which has claimed for decades that sanctions imposed on the country were helping to contain it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outreach to Iran is a strategic one. Unlike other countries, Iran can continue to supply weapons and provide technical assistance unhindered by the threat of sanctions to its weapons manufacturing facilities and the overall economy.

Iran has successfully managed to navigate US isolationist strategies for the past 40 years, and renewed international scrutiny will not deter it from lending further support to Russia.

Iran’s pivot to Moscow is a genuine attempt to pursue realpolitik. Such cooperation will help Tehran modernise its cyberwarfare capabilities, uplift its economy via Moscow’s support for its inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, revamp its military and further develop its space programme to enhance its ballistic missile proficiency.

The US State Department recently announced customary sanctions on three Iranian companies of particular interest. One, Paravar Pars Company, was accused of reverse engineering US and Israeli drones. The latest round of sanctions is a nascent attempt to isolate Iran’s domestic defence industries and prevent it from further aiding Russia in its war with Ukraine.

Iran’s drone programme has existed since the 1980s but took major leaps after 2011, when it hacked a Lockheed Martin Sentinel UAV which flew over Kashmar in northeastern Iran.

An undated photo released by the Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate showing the wreckage of what Kyiv says is an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine. Photo: AP

Lately, Ukrainian investigators analysing captured Iranian drones have found parts that aid in navigation, propulsion, and manoeuvring that have been traced back to transatlantic countries.

A report by RUSI on Russian military systems found 450 items originating from Western countries, whereas 318 components came from 57 US-based companies alone. For example, processors found in Iranian Shahed-136 Kamikaze drones have been linked to US-based Texas Instruments. However, most components are dual-use and commercially available, making monitoring and regulating through export controls difficult.

The utilitarian nature of Iranian drones is a stopgap measure by Russia, as its prototypes, much like most of its military modernisation programmes, are being tested and will be “ready” by the end of the year.

From a fiscal perspective, Iranian drones are relatively cheap, with the Shahed-136 costing US$20,000 per unit compared to the Turkish Bayraktar drones used by the Ukrainians, which cost an eye-watering US$5 million per unit, with additional platform costs running into the tens of millions. These drones, and the promised missiles, represent a cost-saving measure for the Russians as sanctions tie down their economy.

To put this into perspective, on October 10, Russia fired 84 cruise missiles into Ukraine, which amounted to an estimated bill of US$400-700 million, with costs ranging from US$13 million for an X-101 rocket, US$6.5 million for the Kaliber and US$3 million for the Iskander missile.

If the cost of the Kamikaze drones is anything to go by, then the Iranian short-range ballistic missiles Fateh-110 and the Zolfaghar will be a fraction of those prices.

Moreover, it will allow Russia to launch waves of attacks in the coming winter, providing its ground forces adequate cover to penetrate deep inside Ukrainian territory while giving it time to replenish its own depleted arms supplies. The Kremlin is believed to have ordered 2,400 Kamikaze drones, in addition to the Arash-2 drones, which are faster and have an extended range bound to stretch the current Ukrainian air defence systems.


Why Russia is using ‘kamikaze drones’ in Ukraine

Why Russia is using ‘kamikaze drones’ in Ukraine

The current measures to counter this new strategic shift in Russia’s military operations require more than the lip service of sanctioning Iran’s industries or members of its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran is aware of how insulated it is from US sanctions. Excessive attempts to discipline it into submission have led to it aligning its vision with Russia to establish a multipolar world.

The US could’ve restrained Iran had it not abruptly withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement in 2018. Even though the deal focused on restricting Iran’s nuclear capacity, giving it access to the global financial system and Western markets would have radically lifted its living standards and made a section of the economy dependent on Western trade.

Ukraine war is teaching world hard lessons about weaponised interdependence

The leverage created could have allowed the US-led defence on Ukraine to stop Iran from being involved, as the threat of withdrawal of companies from Iran would have prompted a backlash within the country.

Unfortunately, a complete severance of ties brings two pariah states into an unholy alliance that is mutually beneficial. Sanctioning Iran will be the only measure the US can take without engaging it directly.

Sameed Basha is a defence and political analyst with a master’s degree in international relations from Deakin University, Australia